Michael Gove has escalated the government’s war of words with Andy Burnham by accusing the Greater Manchester mayor of risking lives by opting for “press conferences and posturing” rather than agreeing to new coronavirus rules.
In comments set to inflame tensions yet more between ministers and local leaders and MPs, Gove dismissed concerns about the level of economic support offered for Greater Manchester to be moved into the top level of restrictions.
Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, rejected the Labour idea of a so-called circuit breaker temporary national lockdown to reduce Covid infection rates, saying the latest wave of the virus was being spread unevenly around the country.
While he did not mention Burnham by name, Gove was explicit in blaming “the political leadership in Greater Manchester” for an impasse over whether the region should enter tier 3, saying people would die as a result of the delays.
“I want them to put aside for a moment some of the political positioning that they’ve indulged in, and I want them to work with us in order to ensure that we save lives and protect the NHS,” Gove told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday show.
“An absence of action will mean more people get infected. That will place more pressure on the NHS. And the more people, sadly, in intensive care beds in the north-west and in Manchester, who are suffering from coronavirus, the fewer intensive care beds are there for people with other serious conditions.”
He added: “Instead of press conferences and posturing, what we need is action to save people’s lives.”
Burnham and the majority of MPs in the region, including many Conservatives, insist that with the tier 3 rules, which close pubs and bars, ministers must offer extra support for struggling workers and businesses.
Gove rejected the idea of giving more than the current subsidy of two-thirds of wages, saying the support scheme on offer was “more generous than comparable schemes in comparable European countries”.
He also talked down the idea of a circuit breaker, saying the spread of Covid into winter was “different in this wave than it was earlier in the year”.
Gove said: “It would seem to me to be an error to try to impose on every part of the country the same level of restriction, when we know that the disease is spreading more intensively and quicker in some parts of the country.”
He did not, however, rejected the idea of any national lockdown in the coming weeks: “We always look at how the disease spreads, and we’ll take whatever steps are necessary to maintain public health.”
The government’s view is not shared by all Conservative MPs. Overnight, a group of 20 Tories representing constituencies in areas including Norfolk, Kent and Wiltshire released a joint letter asking Greater Manchester’s leaders to agree to the new restrictions, rather than see their areas included in a national lockdown.
It brought an annoyed response from some colleagues. Christian Wakeford, the Conservative MP for Bury South, tweeted: “Since Thursday we’ve been united in opposing tier 3 in its current form and delivering the best solution for all residents, families and businesses across GM. Interventions from fellow members who don’t understand the situation are neither wanted nor helpful.”
Ministers must now decide whether to impose restrictions on Greater Manchester. Gove declined to say whether this would happen, saying he would rather reach a deal over a move into tier 3, as has happened with local leaders in Liverpool and Lancashire.
He said: “One of the reasons why we’ve been talking to local government, is that we believe a partnership approach is best. We could have imposed measures before now, but we want to reach an agreement.”
Last week, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, called for a circuit breaker lockdown, after papers from the government’s Sage committee of scientific advisers showed they had recommended this in September.
Also speaking on the Ridge show, Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said this would be more effective than variable local restrictions.
“Labour’s call is for a national circuit breaker because we think in the long run, that will be more effective more quickly than this constant patchwork of checking in and then never being able to check out of local restrictions that people don’t understand,” she said.
However, Green said it was impossible to say this would only last two or three weeks: “Nobody can guarantee what’s going to happen in what are uncertain and unpredictable circumstances. But we know what makes a difference, what actions need to be taken during those two or three weeks, to begin to bear down on the rate of the spread of the virus.”